Sad news – Robin Williams was a genius. Yeah-yeah, he undersold his talent – or sold out, if you must – with patchy performances or just plain schmaltz (Patch Adams) but look through that list of films. Comedy, drama, he might never have been the consummate performer in either genre, he might sometimes have been best taking from his natural instincts (comedy) and creating something dark and sinister, something you couldn’t actually call comedy. But there are a dozen great Robin Williams performances on film – maybe more. Roles that no one else could do, that you just couldn’t ever think of anyone else – and though people will be quick to praise him for Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society and Awakenings and Mrs Doubtfire and, er, probably Patch Adams – and though in most cases he was great in those films (even if some of the movies haven’t lasted) it’s worth digging back and checking him in some of the misfires and lesser trumpeted roles. The pre “superstar” World According To Garp. The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Insomnia, the cult-classics Shakes The Clown and Death To Smoochy (both reviled, both wonderful!).
He could knock a voice-role out of the park so easily – Aladdin, Happy Feet – and though it’s probably the most uncomfortable thing you could ever sit down to watch now, given this news, his performance in World’s Greatest Dad might be the closest we got to seeing Williams play some parts of himself; the “real” him. Was there ever a real Robin Williams. Seemed there was only ever the reel Robin Williams. He was always “on”. Everyone says that about him, people that had the chance to be dazzled by him in an interview, actors that worked with him, his fellow comics…
Robin Williams became a superstar – and in my lifetime I knew him first for his character Mork from the TV show Mork & Mindy – I was so young at the time the TV show was a success that I didn’t even known, first time around, that it was a spin-off from Happy Days, one of several. We had “Mork jackets” that we wore to school. My mum made them. We were sure we so cool. We had jealous friends even.
Then I found out about Robin Williams the stand-up comedian. He became an actor but he was a stand-up comedian. Those instincts were there in every role, in every interview; that training. And he was amazing.
I had the VHS tape of An Evening With Robin Williams (I won it in a video store competition!) and I watched it over and over. Committing to memory his impersonation of Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen (“I’m dwiving in my cwarrrr/I turn on the wadio/I pull yuu a widdle cwoser/Yuu say noooooo-aaa-ooo”) and memorising almost every line in fact; that bit where a woman goes to the toilet and he drops down from the stage and conducts a search and rescue; when he drops to his knees and does the ET voice and then shouts “Elliott! Ouch! I’m standing on my testicles!” So many bits. And he was sweating cocaine-bullets and piss was all but pouring out of him as he told stories of being too stoned as the policeman’s slow-motion stroll morphed into a hamburger right in front of him. Fucking hell, I hadn’t had any of these experiences, but Robin Williams was teaching me. Preparing me. Warning me.
Go back to Richard Pryor’s early – ground-breaking (and of course cancelled) TV show and you’ll see Robin Williams there in many of the skits, doing the voice-talent work too. Appreciate his spot-on character work in giant movie flops – Popeye, Hook, Cadillac Man. Marvel at how he really could do the serious work – when needed.
And then remember that this was a man that none of us knew. We only knew that work – manic, mad, only occasionally measured. Usually he’d just pour himself right into it. And when twenty-odd years of sobriety fell by the wayside we should have all known something was up. Maybe some of us did. But what can you do? It’s really just our job to sit and watch – to be entertained.
There are so many clips of Williams being a wide-eyed wonder as an interviewee – all over the place in improv-heaven and if you started to recognise and predict the tropes and voices well you still have to hand it to him for his speed, his commitment and for his ability to perform under pressure – all of the pressure of the situation and of being himself – and pretty much every time.
My favourite interview with Robin Williams is from recent years on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. He told some amazing stories, he was candid, open, honest – he owned up to his addictions and his constant struggle across the last decade since falling victim to a hotel mini-bar. That’s all it was in the end. But I get to say that as someone who isn’t currently living with that particular sort of problem. There he was – in isolation (and you have to assume he spent a great deal of his life when not on camera, when not “on”, feeling isolated, living in isolation) – and in a weak moment he hit the bottle. Again. And that was the start of the slide.
Sure, we got him back doing stand-up and he seemed comedy-manic as well as dangerously lit. And there were therefore great moments and a few clunkers. But it was good for a new generation to know that he wasn’t just Patch Adams. That he wasn’t only Jumanji.
I don’t know how to feel about a world without Robin Williams. I can live without Robin Williams movies. No worries. I often have. But I just liked to think he was always there – an influence. A reminder. A wizard. A true star.
I never met the man, never got to see him perform live even. But for a few years there he was my roommate practically – that VHS tape going round and round, his every perfect line – that commitment to character, those voices, that energy, the strange confusion of it, he was living in these moments where he was clearly escaping – it permeated my brain. It blew my fucking mind actually. He spoke to me from that tape. In my room. I watched it over and over. There wasn’t, for a time there, anyone better. He was at one point the best. And he was more than once a total fucking genius.
I couldn’t ever know what he had to live with. And he won’t ever – fully – know what he gave to so many people.
This one will take a while. It won’t ever make sense.
He had a profound impact and influence on my life. So here’s to remembering one of comedy’s great legends. To one of the absolute and very best. A very sad day indeed. I like to imagine that that overactive and trouble mind, fuelling and fuelled by that restlessness, is now at peace. It seemed he couldn’t find it in this world. That sadness will hang there.